Archive 81 unspools outmoded analogue dread
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/01/2022 (490 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Archive 81, the new horror series that’s become a breakout Netflix hit, is a layered investigation into a New York City apartment building that harbours an otherworldly force. The Visser is home to lost spirits, a coven of witches, an ancient demon and some very spooky radiators. Add in a shadowy corporation, an elite secret society, a portentous comet and two deadly fires, and this bingey eight-episode series has scares to spare.
Much of the horror in Archive 81 can be found in an unexpected place, though, lurking in the story’s clutter of obsolete communication and media technologies. With intertwined narratives moving between the 1920s, 1994 and the present day, the series is haunted by rotary phones, pagers, camcorders, Walkmans, answering machines, cassette tapes, phone booths, Betamax players, the Encyclopedia Britannica and old black-and-white TVs. I’m pretty sure I saw some eight-track cartridges in there.
Part of this is sweet longing for the analogue, with modern-day characters whose apartments are filled with vinyl LPs, VHS movies and tangles of old tech equipment, like the Fisher Price PXL2000, a low-res children’s video camera that was only on the market for one year.
This nostalgia has a melancholy tinge, however. Reinvigorating the tired old “found footage” trope, Archive 81 suggests the spookiness of all those images and sounds stranded in the past, wandering like lost souls through the silvery half-life of abandoned technologies. As we pore over faded photographs, try to decipher garbled, fuzzy audio and grainy, indistinct video, we start to see ghosts. We also apprehend the occult power of our technologies.
Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie) is an archivist who spends a lot of time converting outdated technologies into digital form. When suspiciously smooth businessman Virgil Davenport (Martin Donovan) promises Dan $100,000 to clean up and digitize a few smoke-damaged camcorder tapes, the offer seems almost too good.
And it is. Virgil’s Fortune 500 company is so enigmatic it doesn’t have a website or even a logo. It’s just a bundle of shell companies, dark money and sinister purpose. Virgil also demands Dan work on the tapes all by himself in a remote concrete bunker in upper New York state with no internet and spotty cell service.
The sense of unease builds as Dan views the tapes he’s restoring, which turn out to be the video records of grad student Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi).
She’s supposedly doing an oral history of the inhabitants of an average New York apartment building in 1994, except the Visser is anything but average — with its odd, reclusive inhabitants and cursed sixth floor — and Melody, it turns out, is not writing a thesis but trying to uncover the truth about her own hidden past.
Though they’re separated by 25 years, Dan and Melody soon become connected, first by the tapes but then by what could be dreams, paranoid hallucinations or supernatural encounters.
Each episode of Archive 81 begins with some outmoded media form — an old TV commercial, a black-and-white educational film, a snippet of a public access programming, a late-night test pattern.
The series, very loosely adapted from a podcast of the same name, also looks back at its own genre, with references to Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, Don’t Look Now, The Shining, Candyman, Eyes Wide Shut and, of course, The Blair Witch Project.
In Archive 81, all this movement back through time points to the weird, spooky power of media technology. “You ever think about what it means to capture a moment of time on a piece of film, to give it an eternity it was never meant to have?” a character asks. “What else might we be scooping up?”
The series also seems to be riffing on sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke’s famous assertion that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Staring at photographs from the 1920s, another character remarks, “People used to be believe that film could capture all sorts of s**t the human eye couldn’t see — ghosts, spirits, fairies.” For Archive 81’s Jazz Age characters, experimenting with the recent wonders of flash photography, those blurry patches and rings of light became evidence of a supernatural realm.
And while that might seem quaint to us, maybe we should be thinking more about the eerie magic of our own time. Whether it involves Alexa telling jokes, algorithms suggesting novels we might like or smartphones offering wildly inappropriate autocompletes, there’s something spooky about our tech, too.
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Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.